Why Are Lawyers So Depressed?

Editor’s Note: Susan Daicoff is an Associate Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law.  She is a lawyer and professional psychotherapist.  For the past decade, she has been researching and writing on the psychology of lawyers, lawyer personality, lawyer distress and dissatisfaction. She is the author of the book, Lawyer Know Thyself.

Why are so many lawyers depressed?  Larry Krieger and Ken Sheldon’s research indicates that the loss of one’s intrinsic values is responsible for the dramatic increase in depression and lowered sense of well being among law students seen in the first year of law school.  I often think of this at the “ski slope” graphic representation of the excellent Andy Benjamin, et al. studies done in the 1980’s and 1990’s on depression in law students.  Their data showed that depression among law student’s approximated that of the general population, pre-law school (with a prevalence of about 9-10%).  It rose to 32% by the end of the first year of law school, and rocketed to an amazing 40% by the third year of law school, never to return to pre-law school levels.  Across 0 to 78 years of practice, 17.8 to 19% of lawyers reported clinically significant levels of depression.  Now, either the pre-law students assessed two weeks before law school classes began with uncharacteristically “happy” at the top of their game, and thus tested out as less often depressed than they really were, or law school had significant, permanent, deleterious effects on those individuals.  Krieger and Sheldon’s work suggests the second conclusion – and points to the concomitant shift from an emphasis on intrinsic, internal values to extrinsic, external values, as the culprit.

What are extrinsic values?  In law school, my students quickly point out: “Grades!  Class rank, Law Review, Order of the Coif, Moot Court, that great summer clerkship at a silk stocking firm, a plum judicial clerkship, and the brass ring: a lucrative associate position with a crave-able large private practice firm.”  First-year associate salaries at these firms were reported to hit $160,000, for select graduates from select law schools (the National Jurith, January, 2008).  In comparison, the median gross starting salary of a lawyer at a non-profit public service organization is approximately $40,000 (from the National Association of Law Placement).  After law school graduation, my students usually claim: “money, cars, houses, boats” are extrinsic rewards; they now also include Martindale-Hubbell ratings as well as win-loss records.  Extrinsic rewards may also be intangible, such as the approbation of one’s classmates and professors, prestige, status, other’s regard and opinion, and reputation – anything from sources located outside of the individual.  If Krieger and Sheldon are correct, then identifying one’s intrinsic values, holding firm to them, and integrating them into one’s day-to-day law practice are the keys to inoculating one’s self against psychic distress and depression.

So, what are intrinsic values?  What is tricky about intrinsic rewards is often that they are often unique to each individual lawyer or law student; they are not “one-size-fits-all”, as are grades, jobs or salaries.  For some, it may be intrinsically satisfying to represent a client and give that person their “day in court”, uphold constitutional rights, craft a particularly good oral argument, craft a particularly competent legal documents, structure a complex corporate transaction, or negotiate the settlement of a legal dispute.  It may be feeling that we “make a difference” in someone’s life, help someone, or created a new business venture or saved someone money.

Beyond locating our intrinsic values, however, there is one more disturbing finding in the research on lawyer distress that should be addressed.  Reich in 1976 found that many pre-law students wished to be seen as competent, socially ascendant, and in control, but inwardly they felt awkward, anxious, cautious, and unsure.  He suggested that they may have chosen law as a career because it allows one to hide behind a professional mask of competence, leadership, and dominance, without having to expose those more tender feelings of discomfort and awkwardness in social situations.  It allows one to interact with clients, other lawyers, Judges, and other individuals in the course of one’s work at a comfortable professional distance and in a professional, defined “role” with clearly defined role expectations and obligations (even imposed by law in the form of the Lawyer’s Code of Ethics), without having to confront other people without the comfort of this professional role.  This might appear to reduce angst, anxiety, and discomfort.  However, interacting with people always at a professional distance can be isolating, lonely, and discouraging, ultimately leading to depression.  It can even discourage close relationships with other lawyers.  The end result is that this lawyer ends up isolated and alone, even surrounded by clients, assistants, other lawyers, paralegals and other law office personnel.  The very psychological dynamic that may have driven some individuals to chose law as a career may ultimately contribute to debilitating depression in those individuals, necessitating treatment and behavioral change.

Another relevant trade is perfectionism.  Dr. Amiram Elwork has written at length about this in his excellent book, Stress Management for Lawyers.  He notes that perfectionism is adapted and even rewarded in law school and the practice of law; however, it can lead to a way of thinking and behaving that ultimately leads to depression.  It can turn into the attitude of, “if I don’t do it perfectly, I’m no good, it’s no use, I should just give up” or “I have to do it perfectly and I can’t quit until it’s perfect” which can lead to workaholism and isolation.  If a situation or matter does not turn out as hoped for, the individual often blames himself or herself and believes that the reason is because he or she did not “work hard enough,” was “not well enough prepared,” “let something fall through the cracks,” and either “beat themselves up” or resolves to “work harder” next time, not acknowledging that not every matter can turn out as he or she would like to expect.  This perfectionism can lead to an over developed sense of control and responsibility, so that the individual believes that he or she is responsible for the outcomes of matter and situations over which he or she actually does not have complete control.  The belief is erroneous and causes and great deal of angst.  Here is it relevant to note that this angst can either be expressed as depression or irritability and anger, which are really two sides to the same coin.  It is often said in psychology circles that depression is “anger turned inwards” – one might in turn think of anger and irritability, emotions so often seen in private law firms, as depression turned outwards.

So, what are the solutions?  The research and commentary outlined above point to three issues:  (1) focus on your intrinsic values and what you might find intrinsically rewarding about your work, and integrate some element of those values and rewards into your day-to-day work – change your job only if necessary; (2) increase your EQ and interpersonal skills so that you are not anxious and uncomfortable being fully emotionally present in interpersonal situations, challenge yourself to drop your “mask”; (3) undergo cognitive restruction to get rid of imperfectionistic thoughts and behaviors that are setups for anger and depression.  Experts suggest that making the later two changes are sometimes difficult to do alone, that it often requires the assistance of peers or professionals to accomplish this task.  However, identifying your intrinsic values and beginning to incorporate them into your daily work is something that can be done right away.  Whatever changes are indicated, the payoff is worth it, as no profession is as stimulating and challenging as the law, in my opinion, and a career in the law that is satisfying is, indeed, the brass ring”.

Professor Daicoff can be reached at (904) 680-7774 or via e-mail atsdaicoff@fcsl.com.

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